[The decorated initial 'I' based on a Thackeray illustration for Vanity Fair.]
n "Laman Blachard," an essay that originally appeared in Fraser's, Thackeray defends popular literature against those very earnest Victorians, like Newman, who "cry out against the fashion of fugitive literature" (466). Thackeray begins by citing as typical the complaints of one Dr. Carus, "physician to the King of Saxony," who accompanied his employer on a visit to the printing plant of The Times.
Carus was struck with "disgust," he says, at the prodigious size of the paper, and at the thought which suggested itself to his mind from this enormity. There was as much printed every day as would fill a thick volume: It required ten years of life to a philosopher to write a volume. The issuing of these daily tomes was unfair upon philosophers, who were put out of the market; and unfair on the public, who were made to receive (and, worse still, to get a relish for) crude daily speculations, and frivolous ephemeral news, when they ought to be fed and educated upon stronger and simpler diet.
Thackeray, writing as a professional author under his pseudonym Michael Angelo Titmarsh, comically, if perhaps unfairly, suggests that one reason the defenders of high culture attack its popular literature lies in the fact that it effects them in the pocketbook. He then takes up the more central charge from "the bigwig body" as it was made by a respected figure closer to home, the famous Broad Churchman and headmaster of Rugby, Rev. Thomas Arnold, who complained that the
world gives up a lamentable portion of its time to fleeting literature; authors who might be occupied upon great works fritter away their lives in producing endless hasty sketches. kind, wise, and good Doctor Arnold deplored the fatal sympathy which the "Pickwick Papers" had created among the boys of his school; and it is a fact that Punch is as regularly read among the boys at Eton as the Latin Grammar.
Laying on his praise for Arnold rather too lavishly, Thackeray-as-Titmarsh echoes the strategies the Broad Churchman's had used in his religious writing by appealings to Protestant liberty of conscience:
Arguing for liberty of conscience against any authority, however great — against Doctor Arnold himself, who seems to me to be the greatest, wisest, and best of men, that has appeared for eighteen hundred years; let us take a stand at once, and ask, why should not the day have its literature? Why should not authors make light sketches? Why should not the public be amused daily or frequently by kindly fictions? It is well and just for Arnold to object. Light stories of Jingle and Tupman, and Sam Weller quips and cranks, must have come with but a bad grace before that pure and lofty soul. . . I think the man was of so august and sublime a nature, that he was not a fair judge of us, or of the ways of the generality of mankind. 
Dropping much of his irony, Thackeray moves to his central, anti-Puritanical defence of popular culture and of entertainment as a respectable profession when he tells the readers of Fraser's: "I hold that laughing and honest story-books are good, against all the doctors" (467; by "doctors," he means "learned men" — the original latinate meaning of the term — not "physicians."). Admitting that "laughing is not the highest occupation of a man . . . or the power of creating it the height of genius," he compares the profession of author to that of the shoeblack (perhaps thereby intending to remind us of Pickwick's delightful Sam Weller, whom he had just mentioned), and in so doing he makes two very middle-class, perhaps very Victorian emphases — (1) that working for a living is worthy of respect, and not just the kind of ocndescending respect the aristocracy grants those below them in the class hierarchy, and (2) that paying attentions to the needs of the average person of average abilities and interests is quite proper:
I have chosen the unpolite shoeblack comparison, not out of any disrespoect to the trade of literature; but it is as good a craft as any other to select. In some way or other, for daily bread and hire, almost all men are labouring daily. Without necessity they would not work at all, or very little, probably. In some instances you reap Reputation along with profit from your labour, but Bread, in the main is the incentive. Do not let us try to blink this fact, or imagine that the men of the press are working for the honour and glory, or go onward impelled by an irresistable, afflatus of genius. If only men of genius were to write, Lord help us! how mahy books would there be? How many people are there even capable of appreciating genius? [467-68]
Thackeray's defence raises a host of questions and issues. First of all, to what extent does the fact that he made it under a pseudonym, and a comical one at that — Michael Angelo Titmarsh — influence our views of Thackeray's sincerity, or at least pride in his profession? Do you find anything significant in the biographical fact that Thackeray managed to squander a sizeable inheritance with poor investments . . . in newspapers, so that he had to write professionally? Does Thackeray's defence support or contrast W. E. Henley's criticisms of him as writing only in the "gentlemanly interest"?
Finally, do you find something eerie or ironic in his use of the shoeblack as a figure for the professional author, such as Dickens, given Dickens's traumatic experiences with shoeblacking (about Thackeray supposedly could not have known) — or is Thackeray just making atrubute to Dickens's creation Sam Weller?
Thackeray, William Makepeace. "A Brother of the Press on the History of a Literary Man, Laman Blanchard, and the Chances of the Literary Profession." Ballads and Miscellanies. (Volume 13 in the "Biographical Edition" of Works.) London: Smith Elder, 1899. 465-79.
Last modified 29 November 2004